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Updated: State to allow beach bar seating before Labor Day

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Visitors walk the Boardwalk earlier this summer, and many business owners had a tepid outlook. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

WILMINGTON —The state will allow bar seating at resort restaurants for Labor Day weekend, at a time when beach businesses are facing a workforce shortage and the prospect of even slower than normal holiday weekend.

Ahead of the Fourth of July weekend, Gov. John Carney announced that bar seating would be removed from restaurants and taprooms in resort areas like Rehoboth Beach, Dewey Beach, Bethany Beach, Lewes and Fenwick Island. His executive order also expanded to other areas of Sussex County that cater to tourism though.

The hope was to slow the spread of COVID-19, but many restaurants in coastal Delaware lost out on what normally is a record-setting weekend in terms of revenue.

Come this weekend, some restrictions will still apply to restaurants, as patrons must have a reservation to sit at the bar and they also must order food. Seats must also be socially distanced per requirements under restrictions outlined in Delaware’s Phase 2 reopening plan.

“This is not a situation where you will sit and have a few drinks,” said Jamie Mack, the chief of Health Systems Protection unit of the Delaware Division of Public Health (DPH). “We do realize that maybe the initial impact may have shut down in that area and had a heavy impact on establishments that rely on patrons sitting at the bar before table service. This will allow them to get back to that and have a few more seats.”

While the state relaxing the restrictions is an encouraging sign, Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Lauren Weaver found it bittersweet.

“We’re grateful to have one of our holiday weekends, but this time of year is always tough,” Weaver said. “Businesses are short on staff, and folks are just tired at this point.”

In a normal year, this would also be the time when the 1,000 international students that work summer jobs in the Rehoboth Beach area head home. Since the program was put on hold because of COVID-19, however, resort businesses were straining to find staff.

Labor Day is traditionally a slower weekend compared to blockbuster Memorial Day weekend and the Fourth of July, according to Lewes Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Betsy Reamer.

“It’s a good chance to get some revenue, but I would imagine it’s even less to draw from this weekend. Now, school is getting back into session, so even the small number of tourists that come might dwindle even lower,” she said.

Carrie Leishman,  president and CEO of the Delaware Restaurant Association, pointed out that while restaurants were still allowed to serve drinks, alcohol sales — typically higher than other items on the menu still suffered.

“It definitely slowed down revenue dramatically,” she said. “ You have single people who hate to cook and elderly people who love to go to restaurants and sit at the bar to get a meal and a cocktail, and it really curbed that effect.”

The smaller establishments suffered the most, since barstools can easily fit people in compared to tables. Some small eateries lost about $1,500 to $2,000 per night, Weaver said.

“The intent was to stop people packing bars and the nightlife, but it was also hurting smaller places that offered $25 entrees and a $13 cocktail with those that serve $2 Miller Lite,” she said. “There has been a lot of frustration.”

Delaware’s restaurant industry has been hit hard by the pandemic’s economic fallout, with the DRA reporting that the industry has lost $700 million in sales since March. But Leishman said it’s hard to measure how Sussex County restaurants coped compared to others in Wilmington and Dover.

“In the north, it’s much slower in the summer because everyone heads down to the beaches. But it’s safe to say that everyone is at a loss,” Leishman said. “Moving forward, we will continue to advocate for restaurants at the beach to get them at the same level as restaurants in northern parts of the state.”

During his weekly press conference, Carney acknowledged the decision had a heavy impact on businesses that highly depend on the summer months to make it through a slow winter. 

“This is a test for us,” Carney said. “I know people can pull together and follow the guidance. It really comes down to wearing a face covering. It’s a simple thing to do that’s so incredibly protective.”

Mack and restaurant inspectors have done more than 400 compliance checks in Delaware through August, and 150 of those checks came away with no violations. The most common violations were the lack of face coverings in the business.

 A first violation involves inspectors educating the business, while subsequent offenders could face fines and the possibility of being shut down. 

In the future, inspectors’ focus will be shifting to towns with colleges and universities as the student population returns, with inspection targets on nights and weekends, Mack said.

“We were not as patient as we have been in the past,” Mack said. “We have now issued fines and taken some other enforcement actions. In at least one instance, we walked into a place and the conditions were concerning enough that they were closed on the spot.”

By Katie Tabeling

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